There are a lot of Magic Flute haters out there in the business. I think I get it. I think it's the pervasive folksiness, the Masonic references that fail to connect beyond the lodge, and boy, is it preachy. But I'd like to share here why the score never fails to astound me. This is the program note I wrote for OH's production that is about to enter its second weekend of a six-show, double-cast run. (Come see it)
The Magic Flute stands out in the repertoire for its fantastical fairy tale narrative and wildly imaginative music. Its colorful characters make for a particularly captivating introduction to the art form, and its score serves as a sort of kaleidoscopic portrait of Mozart's infinite gifts. It appears he used every musical device in his arsenal - from the lightest ditties in the popular style of the time, to the most elaborate structures that alternately recall and forecast over a century's worth of stylistic developments on either end.
Akin to the pop-songs of their day, Papageno's charming arias are exaggeratedly folk-like - simple and catchy to the extreme. "Der Vogelfänger bin ich, ja, (I am the bird-catcher)," punctuated by his signature five-note figure on his panpipes, is one such aria that conveys a rustic simplicity befitting our proverbial every-man character, whose desires in life are wholly uncomplicated: food, wine, and love.
In stark contrast is the music of the Queen of the Night, whose grandiose entrance resembles something out of Baroque opera seria from a prior generation of the art form that primarily told stories of gods and monarchs. The characteristic gestures are all there - a stately orchestral introduction, accompanied recitative,"O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn (Oh tremble not, my dear son)," a lamenting aria, "Zum leiden bin ich auserkoren (I am chosen for suffering)," - recalling Handel, until Mozart, as if flipping a switch, launches the Queen into an otherworldly display of unprecedented vocal virtuosity, outdone only by her second act rage aria "Der Hölle Rache (Hell's vengeance)."
It is in the music of our romantic leads, Tamino and Pamina, that we hear Mozart paving the way for 19th century lyricism. In Tamino's aria "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön, (This picture is enchantingly beautiful)" Mozart offers soaring heroic gestures, not shying away from dissonances, inhabiting a warm orchestral sound world finessed by the soft edging of clarinets. Pamina's pathetic aria, "Ach ich fühl's es ist verschwunden (Ah, I feel it disappeared)," in contrast offers sparse accompaniment that communicates the bleak emptiness experienced by our heroine, whose halting rhythms signal her throbbing heartache. Mozart, the great psychologist of opera, takes these insights several steps further by designing the opening phrase of Pamina's aria to match that of the Queen with the identical descending figure, note-for-note. Like mother, like daughter, Mozart shows us, by cultivating their signature moments from shared musical DNA.
This sort of intratextual musical allusion occurs throughout the opera. Tamino's reflection on eternal night, "O ew'ge Nacht," appropriately enough, quotes the same melodic figure in the Queen of the Night's very first utterance, "O zittre nicht." In Pamina's hard-won reunion with Tamino, she ecstatically cries, "Tamino, mein (mine)!" tracing the opening phrase of Tamino's aria. Here are early examples of Leitmotif, or recurring associative themes, that would define Wagner's approach to musical storytelling, the better part of a century later. The debt Wagner owed Mozart is also abundantly apparent in the choruses of the priests in Act II, "O Isis und Osiris," which unmistakably anticipate passages in Parsifal, that similarly represent the triumph of light over darkness.
Just when we take a second to catch our breath from Mozart's wild tour navigating popular song idioms, Baroque opera conventions, and proto-Romantic aesthetics, the score takes a leap back, not decades, but centuries into the past. The broad, monolithic declamations of the Two Armored Men in the Act II finale, constitute a cantus firmus anchoring a four-voiced fugue in the strings, a practice that harks back to the High Renaissance, lending immense gravitas to the moment. Not long after this anachronistic and academic music plays out, in comes Papageno again, thrusting us back into the jaunty popular style of Mozart's own time.
While it would be an impossible task to summarize the breadth of Mozart's craft, Magic Flute might serve as well as any single volume could. One would be hard-pressed to find a score by any composer of any era that so deftly synthesizes such disparate styles into a cohesive sound world. Although its fantastical setting and vocal virtuosity tend to draw the most immediate attention, Magic Flute generates its timeless, transportive power from a miraculous feat of compositional virtuosity that could have only come from Mozart.